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Windows 8: What Microsoft Isn't Telling You

Editor's Note: This blog post was written prior to the news that Microsoft's new interface would not be called "Metro." All references to "Metro" were left intact for clarity.  

Microsoft may have really messed up with their Windows 8 strategy. Its first big mistake was releasing community previews of the new OS, while barring most employees from talking about it or even admitting to its obvious existence. Release code without being able to explain it? Bad move. What messaging we did get was preliminary and off-base... and the company may pay for that. Here's what they should have told us.

It Isn't a "Metro Desktop"
The most controversial feature of Windows 8 is the so-called "Metro Desktop," a term that Microsoft never should have let pass without comment. Metro was never intended as a noun; it's an adjective, as in "the desktop with the Metro styling." And it isn't a desktop at all, obviously -- it's a dashboard, an evolution of the gadget-laden Sidebar of Windows Vista, and very close in functionality to the Dashboard view in Apple's Mac OS X. It's actually a better implementation than Apple's, because its tiles are more organized, and it also serves as an application launcher -- something Mac OS X distributes across a file folder, the LaunchPad view, and some other mechanisms.

In other words, the Metro-styled Start screen is a great idea. Its bad rep comes almost entirely from Microsoft refusing to speak about it for so long, and then not talking about it very well when they did ungag. Sure, there are some heavy restrictions on the apps that can run on this Start screen, but it's mainly made as a dashboard -- think lightweight gadgets, not full applications.

What's ironic is that the new Start screen is designed mainly to be touch-friendly -- something that's also been controversial, as the thing is practically unusable with just a mouse. Add in some keyboard shortcuts, though, and it's very slick. Start typing application names and up they pop. Hit "Windows+I" for the sidebar menu thing that took me forever to find with my mouse. Eventually, when we start using Apple-esque multi-touch trackpads with our computers (not just laptops), I suspect the new Start screen will be even nicer.

Microsoft just didn't get out in front of this one fast enough. It reminds me of the first ads I saw for Vista, which focused exclusively on the stupid "flip 3D" application-switching feature. Microsoft buried the headline there, focusing on something trivial and not communicating very well on what made Vista different. Microsoft's made that same error with the new Start screen, and the world in general has crucified them for it.

It's Business-Friendly
Windows 8 comes across as a consumer release -- so much so that a lot of businesses are disregarding it out of hand. Again, that's because Microsoft is burying the headline. In proclaiming Windows 8 as touch-friendly, etc. etc. etc., it's forgetting that 99.9999 percent of its customer base doesn't use touch-based devices. But listen to the messaging coming out of Redmond and you could easily imagine that Windows 8 just isn't something businesses need to care about.

Au contraire.

Windows 8's deeper integration with the improved DirectAccess is nothing short of brilliance. The ability to centrally manage VPN-like connection options for your users, who can simply double-click and connect, is awesome. DirectAccess finally works, is straightforward, and is something everyone should look into -- and Windows 8 really utilizes it best.

SMB 3.0, the new file-sharing protocol in Windows Server 2012, gets the best love from Windows 8. Automatic -- nay, automagic -- failover of load-balanced SMB shares means a whole new way to think about clustered file servers.

Oh, and three words: Windows To Go. Part and parcel of the enterprise edition of the product, it enables you to build a secured, encrypted (via BitLocker) corporate image of Windows 8 on a USB thumb drive. Users can pop that into any computer and get the corporate desktop right there -- and when they pop out the drive, the desktop goes away, leaving no traces on the machine. This is so cool I can barely even wrap my head around it -- yet it's a feature getting relatively little spotlight.

It's Just as Good as Windows 7
The deployment technologies, support processes, and almost all the rest of Windows 8 are astonishingly similar to Windows 7. I think, in their race to look as cool as Apple, Microsoft is making Windows 8 seem a lot more revolutionary than it is -- and I mean that in a very good way. Enterprises don't like revolution; we like evolution. Small, incremental changes we can cope with. Just for once, I'd like Windows 7.1, 7.2, and 7.3 – and Windows 8 actually feels a lot like that. It certainly exhibits about the same level of change as you get going from Apple's OS 10.7 to 10.8 -- some major cosmetic overhaul, some new concepts, but the same basic stuff at the core.

I think you'll have no issues running Windows 8 alongside Windows 7, or even skipping 7 and going straight with 8 if that's where you are in your lifecycle. You need to get the heck off of XP, that's for sure.

Yeah, the new Metro-styled Start screen is going to throw some people for a bit of a loop, but so did the Start menu when Windows 95 was introduced. They'll adapt -- they'll just whine a bit because they haven't had to adapt to any major changes since 2002 when you deployed XP the first time. And yeah, the new Metro-styled experience isn't comprehensive -- you'll find yourself dumped out of the "Metro Desktop" and into "classic" applications more often than you want, especially when you start fiddling with Control Panel stuff. That's fine. It's not as elegant or complete as an experience as we might like, but it's perfectly functional. We -- and our users --  are going to grumble about something anyway, so it might as well be that, right?

Posted by Don Jones on 10/23/2012 at 1:14 PM


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